IMF Official highlights need for strong civil service and dangerous risks associated with PPPs

15 March 2017
In the past, many international development organisations such as the World Bank, IMF and parts of the UN have taken an alarmingly optimistic view of Public Private Partnerships, often ignoring their use as debt-hiding tools and the mounting examples of the failure of private sector partners to provide quality public services. However, after a prolonged campaign by unions and civil society, it seems that some officials are finally starting to admit that PPPs don’t live up to the hype - and that a strong civil service is key in mitigating risks created by the private sector.

From Public Finance International

Strengthening the notion of civil service as a vocation in developing countries is critical to building the institutions needed for sound economic governance, an International Monetary Fund official has told Public Finance International.

Many of the world’s poorest countries suffer from a dearth of skilled civil servants in areas like public accountancy, administration or financial management, with those that are trained in such roles quickly poached by the private sector.

Gerd Schwartz, deputy director at the IMF’s Institute for Capacity Development, added that underpayment and a lack of professionalisation meant that in some countries work in the public sector was viewed with disdain

As a result, “people are not [in their roles] long enough to have an impact” and institutions suffer from constant disruptions to continuity – an effect compounded by the rapid political turnover in such nations.

He stressed that tackling these issues and building a vision of public service as a worthy career was key to sustainable institution and capacity building, which in turn is the foundation for other development work.

“I’m sometimes really surprised when you go to [donor] countries, how narrowly focused people are,” he said, highlighting that plans to support areas such as public investment abroad are often put in place with too little attention paid to the institutional strength needed to manage this in the long run.

He highlighted Germany’s recent ‘Marshall Plan for Africa’ – a development strategy focused on areas like trade, private investment, economic development and job creation and employment.

“What does it mean to foster private sector development in Africa?” he questioned. “It means you create a lot more contingent liabilities. And if you don’t build up public sector institutions to deal with this, you’re going to be in trouble in a few years time.”

Public-private partnerships (PPPs) – touted as one key to unlocking the trillions of dollars of investment needed every year to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – were one financing model he underlined as particularly risky.They have also boomed in the last few decades, despite a sharp reduction following the financial crisis. In 2012, global PPP investment totalled $158bn, compared with $7bn in 1991. This was previously driven by advanced economies. Today however, Schwartz said it is countries like Tanzania and Mozambique that have the most PPP deals in relation to their GDP.

He stressed caution:

“One thing we know about PPPs is that they require very strong public governance institutions. Because the private sector has a lot of good lawyers, and you can be sure they will force the government to do things it hasn’t thought of.”

The contracts PPPs are based on often hold numerous troublesome clauses, he continued. For example, a government may have to agree to pay substantial sums if traffic volume falls below or above a certain threshold on a PPP-built road.He urged countries, and donor governments, to take into account the risks involved. One method would be to use assessment tools such as the fund’s PPP Fiscal Risk Assessment Model.

“All these tools are only as good as the data one puts in,” he conceded, “but at least it forces you to think through certain issues before you agree to something.”

(Abridged)

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